MANAGUA – The improving diplomatic relations between Costa Rica and Nicaragua are being put to test as the controversial case of a Nicaraguan immigrant mauled by dogs three years ago in Costa Rica goes to trial in court outside that country’s capital city.
Along with Nicaragua’s protest over armed patrols of the San Juan River by Costa Rican police, the mauling case presents another diplomatic challenge for Costa Rican Ambassador Antonio Tacsan, as the former agronomist tries to cultivate sprouting relations between the two neighboring countries.
“The case has been taken to the courts. The issue is being resolved where it should be resolved, which is what should happen in all civilized societies,” Tacsan told The Nica Times in a recent interview.
Three Costa Rican judges are set to hear testimony from 48 witnesses in the trial of Tico police officers Erick Sánchez and Asdrubal Luna, who face criminal charges after allegedly failing to act to prevent the death of Nicaraguan Natividad Canda. In video footage made public after the November 2005 attack, the two officers stood by as Canda was mauled by two rottweiler dogs while attempting to enter a warehouse. He later died of his wounds.
Tensions between the two nations grew even hotter a month later, when Nicaraguan immigrant José Ariel Silva was attacked and killed in Alajuela province, west of San José, by a group of Costa Ricans after a bar dispute.
Eyewitnesses said attackers made comments about the dog attack on Canda, then chased Silva and two other Nicaraguans out of the bar, attacking them with rocks and knives as they fled.
The two deaths prompted Nicaragua in 2006 to file a complaint before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission accusing Costa Rica of xenophobia. The court has since dismissed the case.
Tacsan, who presented his credentials to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in January 2007, estimates it could take more than a year for the dog mauling case to conclude in Costa Rican courts. He’s hopeful, however, that the San Juan River case in the International Criminal Court, in The Hague, could reach a decision by next year.
The written phase of the case was recently completed, and the oral phase has begun. The river dispute revolves around whether Costa Rican authorities have the right to conduct armed patrols along the border river, which belongs to Nicaragua. Tacsan hopes a resolution to the San Juan case could mean an end to Nicaragua’s $25 tourist visa for Costa Ricans, which Nicaragua created two years ago to pay for its legal fees related to the ongoing litigation.
“One would hope that when the case is resolved, the visa would be eliminated. But we’ll have to wait and see,” Tacsan said.
While the pending court cases continue to weigh on bilateral diplomatic relations, Costa Rica’s private sector isn’t waiting for the verdicts to deepen its business ties with the country’s fifth-largest trade partner.
Nicaraguan businesses feel the same. “We want at least two more border crossings opened with Costa Rica. We want to streamline our policies bilaterally and ease immigration measures so we can capture tourism that spills over from Costa Rica into Nicaragua,” said Leonal Ubau, of the San Juan River Tourism Chamber.
Ubau was among the tourism leaders, mayors and legislators from both sides of the border that met in Nicaragua’s southern Pacific beach town of San Juandel Sur last week for the binational tourism conference called, “Towards a Bionational Tourism Without Borders.”
Leaders there agreed on the need to open a new border crossing, worked on a plan to bring tourists to the San Juan River and discussed the possibility of dredging the bay at San Juan del Sur to allow for more cruise ships to anchor off of Nicaragua’s most popular beach destination.
The Costa Rican Embassy hopes to bring businesses from both sides of the bordertogether again at a binational business fair Aug. 28 and 29 at Managua’s Hotel Camino Real, Tacsan says.
Friends From the Farm
The son of a Chinese immigrant to Costa Rica, Tacsan grew up on a sugarcane plantation in the northern province of Guanacaste, which was owned by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias’ grandfather, Julio Sánchez. Though Arias grew up in the Central Valley coffee town of Heredia, Sánchez often brought him to the plantation and sugar mill, known as Tobogan.
That’s where the future Tico president met Tacsan, whose father supplied the plantation’s workers with food and materials. Their friendship strengthened during subsequent visits by Arias and his brother Rodrigo in the early years of their political careers.
Tacsan, an agronomist by trade, says the only reason he’s assumed a diplomatic role now is because of his relationship with Arias.
A defender of Costa Rica’s budding relationship with his native country, Tacsan says it’s only a matter of time before Nicaragua and other Central American countries forge similar diplomatic ties with China.
Last year, Costa Rica became the first country in the region to establish ties with the Asian economic Goliath, despite concerns over what that meant for the Tico’s human-rights record.
“Relations with China were going to be established sooner or later,” Tacsan says. “It’s impossible to ignore China. It’s a reality. The majority of countries have relations with China.”
He predicts that Managua’s eventual ties with Beijing is “inevitable,” particularly as Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s new president, is expected to seek closer ties to mainland China, in turn perhaps making it easier for Latin American countries like Nicaragua to adopt a “two Chinas” diplomatic policy in the future.
Borders and Booze
Closer to home, Tacsan says opening up the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border and expediting border-crossing paperwork is a priority on both sides of the border.
“It’s one of the things we need to resolve,” he said.
Traffic at the border should see some relief now that customs officials last month implemented a second processing window for truck drivers. Previously, tourists and drivers all had to wait in the same line.
But with the San Juan River dispute still making its way through International Court, Costa Rican and Nicaraguan Foreign Ministries have been slow to agree upon details to expedite visas or open border crossings.
“Tourism along the San Juan River is restricted because Costa Ricans have to pay $25 for a visa. That has stopped (Costa Rican) visitors from coming. And for (Nicaraguans) who live on the San Juan River, in towns such as El Castillo, their income has been affected. The situation is critical,” Ubau said.
Ubua says he hopes Nicaraguan legislators from the National Assembly’s Tourism Commission who attended the summit in San Juan del Sur last week will help bring this issue to the table in the legislature. Tacsan, in the meantime, is hopeful about the binational business fair at the Hotel Camino Real. Some 50 businesses from both sides of the border were invited, with confirmed attendees ranging from the beverage sector to tourism to finance.
The fair will conclude today at the Hotel Intercontinental Metrocentro, when Costa Rica’s National Liquor Factory is expected to announce plans to market, for the first time ever in Nicaragua, the Costa Rican guaro drink Cacique, a sugar-cane based liquor.
“We want to create a very Costa Rican environment. There’s a lot of enthusiasm about this,” Tacsan said.
After all, if guaro can’t bring neighbors together, what can?